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US-China Alaska meeting: Contentious tone at opening of talks not surprising, experts say

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre) lost no time in airing their grievances with China.PHOTO: AFP

If Beijing went into its talks with the United States in Anchorage, Alaska, seeking a reset in their relationship after years of fraught ties and a bruising trade war under the Trump administration, the hard line adopted by Biden administration officials in the opening minutes of their meeting quickly made it clear that was not going to happen.

There was remarkable continuity in the Trump administration's hardline approach to China in the envoys' first face-to-face meeting since President Joe Biden took office.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken lost no time in airing their grievances with China, citing "deep concerns" about Chinese repression of Muslims in Xinjiang, erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and aggressive actions in the Taiwan Strait, as well as Chinese cyber attacks on the US and economic coercion of allies.

The US would not stand for that behaviour, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made clear as he said: "We will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends."

China, on the other hand, said that these attacks on its domestic and foreign policies were unreasonable. China's top diplomat, Mr Yang Jiechi, argued that America's own human rights record at home and abroad was so blemished that it had no place criticising China on that front.

While the opening of the talks was not the rapprochement some had hoped for, the contentious tone was also not too surprising, said analysts.

"This was always about the Biden team setting a new baseline. Raising a range of concerns. Dispelling hope there would be a reset," said American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Eric Sayers on Twitter. "Wasn't a way to make it pretty. But had to happen, in person."

Hinrich Foundation research fellow Stephen Olson told The Straits Times: "As we knew going into this meeting, there are very real differences between these two countries that simply can't be papered-over, and I think that was reflected in the confrontational opening."

Both sides were trying to stake out positions and lay down markers in a forceful way, he said.

"This is not typical of how discussions were handled in the past, but as points of friction increase between the US and China, it might become the 'new normal'," Mr Olson added.

One notable difference was the Biden administration's strong emphasis on human rights and democracy, which were largely non-issues under President Donald Trump.

China will forcefully signal that any attempt by the Biden administration to link human rights and trade or other issues will be rebuffed in the strongest possible terms, Mr Olson said in a commentary on the Hinrich Foundation's website.

Mr Olson told ST: "There will be no easy way to reconcile these divergent views, and Anchorage could be the first of many times that Blinken and (Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi) butt heads on this issue."

Analysts also observed how the envoys appeared to be talking at cross purposes, with Washington focusing on Chinese misbehaviour and Beijing questioning America's moral authority and place to make such demands at all.

"The Anchorage summit previews the narrative duelling that's poised to grow more central to US-China relations," said Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne on Twitter.

"US officials are stressing America's capacities for introspection and reinvention. Chinese officials are deriding US governance and touting Beijing's resurgence," he added.

Said Mr Olson: "There are a number of issues that these two countries are simply never going to see eye to eye on. They cannot be ignored."

The challenge, he said, was to "manage these differences in ways that minimise disruptions and still leaves the door open to the many areas where it is mutually beneficial to cooperate".

And while the opening did not seem off to a good start, this does not preclude a mellowing of tone further down the road.

"Keep in mind, this is just the first round of a 15-round heavyweight boxing match," said Mr Olson.